Indian leader says anti-graft bill will take time

AP News
Posted: Aug 20, 2011 7:58 AM
Indian leader says anti-graft bill will take time

India's prime minister said it would take time to pass anti-corruption legislation, as an activist fasted for a fifth day Saturday to demand that his bill be approved.

Anna Hazare told supporters that he felt weaker from fasting but would "fight on" for the cause. More than 10,000 people surrounded him as he sat on a concrete stage in front of a photograph of Indian freedom fighter Mohandes K. Gandhi.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, however, said political parties and elected officials needed time to reach a consensus on drafting a "strong and effective" bill.

"We are open to, I think, discussion and dialogue," Singh told reporters, noting the government had already introduced a draft bill for legislative debate. "Our hope is that we can enlist the cooperation of all thinking segments of Indian public opinion."

The 73-year-old Hazare _ using the same protest tactics as Gandhi _ has frustrated the government with demands that it adopt a version of the bill that would also place the judiciary and prime minister's office under the purview of a new anti-corruption ombudsman.

Hazare has captured 24-hour news coverage and given hope to Indians fed up with the bribery and favoritism that are routine at all levels of government. Crowds carrying signs proclaiming "I am Anna" have protested across the country for days in support of his hunger strike.

"The funds in government treasuries are ours," Hazare said Saturday. "The treasuries are not threatened by thieves but by those who guard it."

Hazare said he had lost 7.5 pounds (3.5 kilograms) since starting the fast and felt "a little weak."

"But there is nothing to worry about it. The fight will go on," he said.

Hazare has threatened to continue fasting until death unless Parliament passes his legislation by Aug. 30. In India, suicide is illegal, and authorities are required to intervene when a hunger striker's life is at risk.

Singh, without mentioning Hazare or his campaign, said his government favored strong anti-corruption legislation and hoped for "a broad national consensus to emerge" _ a process that he said would take time.

The head of the parliamentary committee drafting the ombudsman legislation also suggested that quick passage was unlikely. "No time limit can be accurately specified, except that the reference to us initially is for three months," said Abhishek Singhvi, according to the Press Trust of India news agency.

Both the government and main opposition have been sullied by a string of scandals in the past year, leading to parliamentary bickering that has prevented progress on issues from land reform to widespread malnutrition.

Hazare hinted Saturday at widening his campaign, pledging also to fight for farmers' rights, electoral reform and rules against arbitrary land acquisition.

"I want to tell the youth of this country that this fight should not be stopped" with the anti-corruption bill alone, he said.